Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D)
Elected: 2002, term expires Jan. 2011, 2nd term.
Born: Oct. 12, 1950, Thermopolis .
Education: Amherst Col., B.A. 1973, U. of WY, J.D. 1980.
Family: Married (Nancy); 4 children.
Professional Career: Practicing atty. 1980-94; U.S. atty. for WY, 1994-2001
Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, was elected governor of Wyoming in 2002. He grew up on a farm north of Thermopolis, the seventh of eight children. Freudenthal (FREE-den-thal) graduated from Amherst College and then returned to Wyoming to work for the state Department of Economic Planning and Development. Democratic Gov. Ed Herschler appointed him state planning coordinator in 1975. Freudenthal went to University of Wyoming Law School, graduating in 1980. He practiced law in Cheyenne, while remaining active in politics, serving from 1981 to 1985 as the Wyoming Democratic chairman. In 1994, he was appointed U.S. attorney for Wyoming and stayed in that position until 2001, when he began planning his campaign for governor. The incumbent, Republican Jim Geringer, was ineligible to run for a third term. Five Republicans and four Democrats got into the race, and focused on economic development. Freudenthal’s chief competitor in the Democratic primary was Paul Hickey, son of former Democratic Gov. Joseph Hickey. In the August primary, Freudenthal beat Hickey 54%-37%. The winner in the Republican primary was state House Speaker Eli Bebout.
|Dave Freudenthal (D)||135,516||(70%)|
|Ray Hunkins (R)||58,100||(30%)|
|Dave Freudenthal (D)||26,550||(90%)|
|Al Hamburg (D)||3,062||(10%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2002 (50%)
The two nominees had similar positions on many issues. They favored the death penalty, opposed gun control laws and a state income tax. Bebout liked to point out that Freudenthal, as a U.S. Attorney, was an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton, who was not very popular in the conservative state. But his business interests caused him some problems. The Casper Star-Tribune reported that he had not repaid a $468,000 loan given to him in 1983 by a company on whose board he served. Freudenthal won 50%-48%, including 59%-39% in the five counties in the southern end of the state, the traditionally Democratic Union Pacific counties.
In Freudenthal’s first term, the state was in remarkably good fiscal position. Increases in land values due to mining activity had produced surges in state revenue and a budget surplus. Higher natural gas and oil prices gave the state projected surpluses of more than $1 billion in 2004 and 2005, and nearly to $2 billion in 2006. While most other states struggled with deficits, the only issue in Wyoming was how much to put into savings and how much to spend. Some of the surplus was socked away in a Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, which produced interest earnings to pay state operating costs and to keep taxes low. Some school districts in mineral-rich regions were collecting so much from high mineral prices and production that it skewed the state’s attempts to equalize school funding. Under a constitutional amendment, these districts were allowed to keep some of the excess money, rather than send it to the state for redistribution to less wealthy districts. Freudenthal supported a constitutional amendment abolishing the limit on redistribution of property tax revenues, but it failed.
In 2005, Freudenthal proposed $293 million of additional spending, and got the Republican-controlled Legislature to agree to a $30 million wildlife trust (although he’d originally sought $70 million). He was also able to fund raises for teachers, a college scholarship endowment, a University of Wyoming library complex, and new four-lane highways. Fueled by booming natural gas prices, the state entered 2006 with yet another massive surplus, and Freudenthal proposed $772 million in new spending for tax cuts, a pay hike for state employees, school construction, highways, water projects, scholarships, and home heating assistance. He also proposed boosting the state’s “rainy day” fund to $500 million with the surplus revenues. The Legislature approved a 2-year budget that funded many of the governor’s priorities, but opted to put only $183 million in the reserve fund and an extra $200 million into the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. The budget also spent more than $2.2 billion on education funding and school construction and included a two-year repeal of grocery taxes.
Freudenthal also signed a suicide prevention bill that year. Wyoming has the highest rate in the country, about double the 11 per 100,000 national rate. The governor’s approval ratings remained high—67% in 2005. One of the rare low points for him in his first term was some criticism from environmentalists unhappy with several of his appointments, including one that put a mining executive in charge of the Department of Environmental Quality.
Freudenthal showed sensitivity on some environmental issues, but was mindful of the importance of natural resources to the Wyoming economy. He opposed a move in Congress in 2005 to lift restrictions on winter drilling on federal lands designed to protect wildlife and resisted a Forest Service plan to auction off 20,000 acres of Bridger-Teton National Forest for oil and gas development until conservation objections were resolved. He also was on the front lines of several longstanding water disputes with Wyoming’s neighbors. In 2006, he signed an agreement with Nebraska and Colorado over use of water from the Platte River that balanced the needs of water use and endangered species protection. Freudenthal and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California also signed a memorandum of understanding in 2006 that would tap federal funding to develop “clean coal” power plants in Wyoming that would generate electricity for power-hungry California and be transmitted via a new multi-billion dollar Frontier Line transmission project.
Freudenthal entered his 2006 re-election campaign in a strong position. His Republican opposition was rancher and attorney Ray Hunkins, who had run unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 2002. Hunkins accused the governor of an ineffective fight against methamphetamine use and for failing to plan for the lean times by diversifying the economy. Freudenthal’s campaign mailed out an 11-page “Report to the Citizens of Wyoming” detailing his success and praising the Republican Legislature for working with him. State Republican Chairman Drake Hill angered members of both parties when he conducted opposition research on Freudenthal and funded a negative radio ad that portrayed the governor as living a lavish lifestyle and using a state-financed “party plane.” The plane, which Freudenthal had not in fact traveled on, was actually used by the state to conduct aerial surveying work, and the issue reinforced Freudenthal’s attempt to portray himself as above partisan politics. He campaigned as “Gov. Dave” and a Star-Tribune poll showed him with a 33-point lead in the final weeks of the campaign. The poll proved only slightly inaccurate. Freudenthal won a second term 70%-30%.
In 2006 and 2007, declining natural gas prices reduced projected budget surpluses, but the state was still in good shape fiscally. In 2007, the Legislature approved a $470 million supplemental spending bill, which included $100 million for highway construction, and permanent repeal of the grocery tax. Freudenthal also signed bills that increased fees for hunting and fishing licenses by 20%, an open container law prohibiting alcohol consumption in moving vehicles, and property tax relief for combat veterans.
Heading into the 2008 session, Freudenthal was feeling more cautious as gas revenue continued to decline. He asked for only minor increases in spending, except for a splurge on education. He proposed $1.8 billion for K-through-12 education, up about $500 million from his last budget. The Legislature passed his $8 billion budget with only minor revisions. He also signed a bill extending property tax refunds for low-income residents, but criticized the Legislature for not doing more to alleviate property taxes. After the nation’s mortgage bubble burst in 2008, he asked the Legislature to revive a homestead property tax exemption to give homeowners “short-term relief,” saving them between $185 and $290 annually on their mortgage bills. But his proposal failed to pass.
By early 2009, Wyoming was feeling the recession like every other state, only perhaps not quite as badly. Money for discretionary spending was down by two-thirds, and Freudenthal ordered state agencies to plan for budget cuts of 5% to 10%. Still, in March 2009, legislators approved $164 million in new spending, with the largest appropriation, $69 million, going to build a complex in Cheyenne for new public health, environmental quality and criminal investigation laboratories.
Freudenthal is technically term-limited in 2010, but the popular Democrat could feasibly seek an unprecedented third term. A state law passed in the 1980s to limit governors to two terms and a voter-approved referendum in 1992 limited the terms of state officeholders. But in 2004, a lawsuit brought by two term-limited state legislators resulted in a court ruling that an amendment to the state constitution would be required to enforce the limits. Although that decision didn’t apply to the state’s chief executive, legal analysts believe that if Freudenthal challenged the constitutionality of his own term limits, he would win. He has been mum about his own intentions. If he does run, he would likely be re-elected. Otherwise, Republicans sense a pickup opportunity in a state where Republican presidential nominee John McCain won with 65% of the vote.